By Shyam D Kumar Mar. 31, 2016
In a land caught in the crosshairs of a decades-old fight between the government and the rebels, justice rings hollow. The tribals focus their rage on one entity... God.
n southern Chhattisgarh’s Kanker district, a strange procession begins every August.
Hundreds of tribal men, armed with bows and arrows, sickles, and small axes, set out on foot from nearly 300 villages from the area adjoining the state’s beautiful Bastar region. The men, dressed in their finest dhotis and kurta, accessorised with cowrie necklaces and bracelets of brace, are converging on Sur Dongar, or God’s Village. They trek past 12 hairpin bends to reach Mount Kalkesh, weathering plunging streams and dense forests, sometimes covering more than 50 kilometres a day. That’s a long journey, considering their precious cargo: their gram devtas or village deities, seated on a fragrant aanga, made of Bel or Saja wood, anointed with peacock feathers, turmeric, oil and flowers. Tots of the local brew keep the villagers going.
Once atop the mountain, the procession gets a raucous welcome. It’s time for the men and their Gods to pay obeisance at the temple of Bhanga Ram Devi, the most powerful one in the tribal pantheon. Only offerings of chicken, rice, and flowers – and a line-up of all the gram devtas – please the Devi.
Over the following week, more rituals follow, along with preparations for a “court session”. The last day of the week is an all-nighter. Goats are sacrificed and eaten. The meat is considered sacred and carrying it out of the temple is a bad omen. On Saturday, the trial begins.
The proceedings of this trial are not very different from those witnessed in any other court. The accused are lined up in the durbar. The court is called to attention, and the trial begins. A steady stream of village headmen lists out crimes of the past year, a litany of all foul that has befallen each village from floods to forest fires, epidemics to snake bites. All sins against life are recounted and the manjhis and sirhas (local priests) lay them at the door of the accused, the one who is deemed ultimately responsible for the fate of the villagers…
Chhattisgarh’s tribals aren’t alone in bringing the almighty to book – people across the globe and throughout history have registered their complaints against the heavens with the judicial system of the land. In some cases, God has even been executed. In Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History, Uruguayan journalist and writer, Eduardo Galeano tells us how in 1918, in the midst of the revolutionary upheaval in Moscow, a Bible was put in the chair of the accused. The defence lawyer argued that God was not fit to stand trial on grounds of mental illness, but the tribunal hearing the case eventually sentenced him to death. On January 17, at dawn five rounds of machine-gun fire were shot at the heavens.
For the people of Kanker, each of the syllables of the word “Bhagwan” signifies one of the five elements: Bh is for bhoomi (earth), ga for gagan (sky), va for vayu (wind), a for agni (fire), and n for neer (water). So it is perfectly logical for the gram devtas to be penalised when they fail to hold up their end of the bargain.
Closer home, the irrigation department of Bihar’s Rohtas district petitioned a local court to demolish a Hanuman temple, located in the middle of a busy road, in February this year. The court in turn issued a summons to the God for illegal encroachment of government land – and upon not finding anyone to receive the notice at the premises, left it pasted on the idol’s chest.
This real-life litigation has yielded a vast playground for fiction – the 2012 Paresh Rawal-Akshay Kumar satirical comedy OMG – Oh My God!, based on a Gujarati play, sued God of destruction of property due to an earthquake. But the sharpest such example comes from the 2008 teleplay God on Trial, written by British screenwriter Frank Cottrell-Boyce, based on a widely repeated Second World War story that is most likely apocryphal. In the drama, a group of Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz try God for abandoning his people and allowing the Nazis to commit genocide. God, the drama concludes, broke the agreement, and “therefore God is a cheating bastard”.
The chief justice at the Chattisgarh trial does not go so far as to call God a cheating bastard. Ramji, the sprightly 65-year-old pramukh of all the villages sports a turban with a couple of feathers, is more circumspect with his grievance. “Bhagwan hai kyunki hum hai,” he says in the local Gondi dialect, “aur hum kyunki Bhagwan.” He takes his role as the arbiter of this dispute rather seriously. It is a role that has been passed down the generations – Ram’s father, grandfather, as well as great-grandfather were all pramukhs – and one that he has prepared well for.
Ram’s sage observation stems from the tribals’ belief in animism. For the people of Kanker, each of the syllables of the word “Bhagwan” signifies one of the five elements: Bh is for bhoomi (earth), ga for gagan (sky), va for vayu (wind), a for agni (fire), and n for neer (water). So it is perfectly logical for the gram devtas to be penalised when they fail to hold up their end of the bargain.
In the durbar of Bhanga Ram Devi, the villagers are the prosecutors, the judge, and the jury. During the hearing, the headmen systematically explain the losses incurred, and how the Gods fell short of fulfilling their commitments.
Punishment for their crimes vary. Some Gods get away easy, with only a few months in the Rawaana Sthal, a penitentiary in the form of a cavernous hole in the mountain close to the temple. Others are forced to spend more than a year in there. But if the villagers have felt particularly aggrieved during a year, a guilty one can permanently get relegated to the solitary. No devotees are allowed in there, and without an adoring bhakt, it can get pretty lonely in the Rawaana Sthal.
Even if you’re God.
Edited by Karanjeet Kaur